Tuesday, March 20, 2007 at 04:13PM
Written by Ben Barry, AnyBody member and CEO of a modelling agency for women in their diversity
their stuff in Toronto. For some, this will have been their first chance to
walk the runway. Others will be veterans of the global catwalk circuit. But
they will all have one thing in common: Extreme, some would say freakish,
Models are the stars of every fashion week. Sure, designers create the
outfits but the models bring those clothes to life. Their faces and bodies
saturate our televisions, newspapers, and computer screens. Models are the
ones with glamour on tap, the kind of glamour we all supposedly want to
For the past nine years < since I was 15 years old < I have attended
countless fashion shows. I was initially an up-and-coming modeling agent
sneaking into the shows through back doors. I eventually became established,
and I was officially invited to sit among the fashion elite.
³Ben, you¹re so lucky,² my friends bemoan. ³Going to fashion shows, and
meeting the models. It must all be so glamorous.² They plead to be invited.
Just to one show. Just to meet one model. Just to be glamorous, too.
That sad truth is that I have always found fashion modeling to be a tragic
and demeaning experience.
In the days before a fashion week begins, models rush to meet with designers
for castings. The designers flip through models¹ portfolio; ask them to walk
the length of the room; have them try on articles of clothing; and of
course, take their pictures. The models are in and out without saying
anything more than ³yes² and ³thank you.² When asked what these designers
remember about the models, they respond, ³her size.² Physical attributes
constitute the only job requirement.
Things start going wrong for many models right away. At one casting,
³Ashley,² 19 years old, size zero, 5¹10², is asked to try on a pair of
trousers. After a couple of minutes of struggling to close the top button,
the designer marches over. ³Your hips are too big, you need to make them
smaller,² he says in front of all the other models before shooing her out
the door. Ashley leaves, humiliated and confused, wondering how she was
supposed to alter the size of her hips.
The girls who do get booked for shows aren¹t allowed to leave their body
stress behind them. Backstage is where things get really frightening.
At London Fashion Week 2007, I took it all in. One model, ³Jennifer,² was
trying to close a zipper on her designer jacket. The designer stood before
her, shaking his head. ³You¹ve gotten fat,² he said to the 18 year old, size
zero model. ³I¹ll need to let this jacket out. It will ruin the cut. They¹re
not made for big girls like you.²
Jennifer turned red. She managed to hold back her tears as the designer made
his adjustments, and everyone stopped to gawk.
On another occasion, I witnessed an equally thin model get even worse
treatment when she couldn¹t fit into her size zero dress. The designer
pointed to another model and proclaimed, ³She¹ll wear the dress instead.
Your stomach has gotten too big. Dismissed!² The girl tried to hide between
the racks of clothing while she peeled off the tiny dress. She was later
escorted out as once again everyone stared.
The situation is worse for mature models; we are talking anyone older than
20. Most begin their careers at a time when their body shape is still
pre-pubescent. They get older, they develop curves, and bye-bye sample
I met Rena, 22 years old, size two, backstage at London Fashion Week. She
told me that this had to be her last season. ³I can¹t handle it any more.
Every time I do a show now, I get so anxious. There are so many teenage
girls. I¹m on Slim-Fast, but there¹s no way I can compete any longer.² I
offered her an apple. ³No, thanks,² she replied, ³My agent said fruit causes
bloating.² I assured her that there is no fat in fruit but she didn¹t care.
Megan, 16 years old, put it this way: ³No matter how skinny you are, you
always think you can be skinner, and there are other girls that are going to
be skinner than you.² If the very women representing the beauty ideal feel
excluded from it, how can anyone feel included?
Agents are always there to make sure a model¹s weight remains first and
foremost in her mind. Rebecca, 18 years old, dropped by her agency before a
casting to surprise her hard-working booker with a latte. Her kindness was
repaid by her being unexpectedly weighed and measured in front of everyone
who happened to be there.
Constant public humiliation < whether at the casting, the fashion show, or
the agency < is the norm in the so-called glamorous life of a model.
Everyone in the fashion world, from the agents to the designers to the
make-up artists, feels that they have a God-given right to comment on a
model¹s appearance. And everyone is prepared to tell painfully thin models
that they need to be thinner. Comments like these would amount to harassment
in any other profession.
It is no wonder that many models develop eating disorders. No one values
their thoughts, personalities, or feelings. Everyone values them for their
bodies alone. In time, models internalize the dangerous idea that they are
worth what they look like.
I have met many models who had a passion for politics, or writing, or
basketball when they first started. Two or three years later, any other
interests are squelched to make way for a deep and abiding obsession with
weight and appearance. The sad irony is the qualities that make supermodels
< the ones who rise to the very top of the industry, exude energy, attitude,
and character with every strut and pose < are progressively stripped away by
the casting process when it comes to most girls.
The fashion industry claims that they are not to blame for any deaths by
malnutrition. These are isolated incidents, they say. The ways models are
treated and valued supposedly has nothing to do with these tragedies. I beg
to differ. Just YouTube any episode of Next Top Model (either the Canadian
or American version) and watch how girls are transformed in front of your
eyes from multi-faceted, confident young women to weight-obsessed, insecure
wrecks. The heartrending incidents are the result of working within an
industry that objectifies women, which in turn teaches them to objectify
This must sound very hypocritical coming from a modeling agent. But I do
things differently. My models span all ages, sizes, colours, and abilities.
They are accepted, promoted, and hired based on their natural physical
attributes. I don¹t represent any models full-time. They go to school, work
as doctors and sales clerks, and run their own businesses. Modeling is
something they do on the side for a few days every month < a performance to
which they bring their varied experiences to bear.
I don¹t expect our entire ³glamorous² modeling industry to follow my example
overnight. What can we do to protect the wellbeing of our Canadian models in
the short term? L¹Oreal Fashion Week needs to follow the lead of event
organizers in Madrid and Milan by mandating medical tests for each model to
ensure they are of healthy weight. Let them feel like they can get away with
eating an apple now and then.
In the long run, we should go all the way and make true body diversity the
fashion in Canada: models of all ages, sizes, colours, and abilities. Body
diversity on the catwalks might be more attainable than you think. The March
2007 issue of Vogue, arguably the most powerful fashion player in the world,
features size 12/14 Jennifer Hudson on its cover. If Vogue can do it,
L¹Oreal Fashion Week can give it a shot.
Such a strategy would draw international media attention to Toronto¹s
catwalks, something missing from the Canadian shows right now. And for those
worried about the bottom line, diversity would allow consumers to relate to
the models, relate to the brand, and demonstrate that positive relationship
through spending power. Most significantly, women reading magazines and
watching fashion television who say, ³I could never look like that,² will be
free to re-discover themselves.
Then, and only then, will modeling truly be a glamorous life.
Ben Barry is CEO of the Ben Barry Agency, a model consultancy
headquartered in Toronto. He is a graduate student at Judge Business School,
Cambridge University and author of Fashioning Reality (Key Porter Books).